Yes, by my green candle, I’m dying of hunger. You’re looking
exceptionally ugly tonight, Madam, is it because
we have company? (...)
Well, captain, how did you enjoy your dinner?
Very much, Sir, except for the shrite.
Oh, I didn’t think the shrite was too bad.
The fin de siècle period abounded with a multitude of unique and intriguing figures. The impudence shown by Parisian bohemians excited and inspired nearly all of Europe. Moral and artistic scandals, fanned with the vapour of absinthe and opium, came as a shock to estimable and refined social circles. There were voices about a decline of the tradition and principles. The upcoming modernity was as feared as its young and wild personalities. One of them was Alfred Jarry, an uncompromising eccentric who, during his short lifetime, managed to disturb both aesthetic and social standards. His artistic activity developed at a time when the artistic arena was dominated by Symbolism, with its sophisticated language, metaphysical references and an intricate amalgam of individual imagery. Initially, Jarry adapted himself perfectly to the surrounding atmosphere; the newcomer from the province was accepted by the circle of impudent cape-wearing decadents. Not only was he a good drinking partner, he also had an impulsive individuality; he would often flaunt a revolver unceremoniously and declare himself ready to put a bullet into the head of a "poor" artist or a nitpicking critic. On top of all this, when formulating opinions, he would express his views with a childish directness that complemented his bohemian image. Indeed, Alfred Jarry worked hard to be remembered. Ironically, his most significant play - Ubu Rex
, expected to gain him popularity, instead gave him the reputation of a weirdo. At his deathbed in 1907, aged 34, at the dawning of an era of new artistic challenges, Jarry continued to be the object of colourful anecdotes, a legend he had created himself, an intriguing but mediocre writer and an insane scientist - a Pataphysician.
Ah gentlemen, there’ll always be a Poland.
Otherwise there wouldn’t be any Poles!
Until 1922, Ubu Rex
remained within a close circle of experts in decadent literary works of the late 19th
century. The author was given back the attention when Jarry’s work was published for the first time. Yet, even at that time, the artist’s life turned out to be more interesting than his art; the latter clearly seemed to be anachronistic and did not agitate emotions to the extent it had done during its world premiere in 1896. Times had changed. The cavalcade of the World War I had rolled through Europe and left a permanent trauma in people's minds. The artistic life was shaken by more and more new trends and tendencies, from revolutionary Russian Avant-garde to German Expressionism. The dynamics of aesthetic changes, underpinned by the trauma of modern warfare, lead to another withdrawal from the rationalist reality and devotion to metaphysical experiments.
The artistic map of Europe saw the debut of the Surrealists, under the spiritual and intellectual leadership of André Breton. It was this particular formation that reintroduced Alfred Jarry’s work, turning him into one of their favourite authors. During their turbulent and prolific activity, Ubu Rex
was interpreted by the Surrealists on stage, in literature and in painting on a number of occasions. References were also made to the scandalous Parisian premiere, which had been opened by Alfred Jarry himself. The achievements of Francis Picabia, Max Ernst or Tristan Tzara in the field of references to the symbolist literary legacy worked like the Baxandallian 'billiard ball', which triggered the memory of the already forgotten author in the minds of the general public. The fascination for Ubu Rex
was accompanied by the fascination for Jarry’s pseudo-science - the Pataphysics.
But what was so special about Ubu Rex
that stirred up so much interest even after a quarter of a century? Indeed, in the mid-1920s, it was a myth of the literature rather than a vital part of it. In some sense, the answer is found in the play itself; yet it would be a gross simplification to deconstruct the text only, without taking into account what a figure Ubu turned into. What attracted the Surrealists was the language developed by Jarry and the fact that he had made the historic reality unreal. Also for them, the rationality brought by the modern culture dictated acknowledged conventions, and a revolt against the tradition and the past was a keynote of their manifestos.
A similar approach is presented by Alfred Jarry, even if his farce was not a result of the author’s revolt, but was originally intended as merely a malicious and obscene caricature of a hated teacher, written by Jarry at the age of 15. In consequence, contrary to the author’s intentions, Ubu Rex
started a new life, and the character himself dominated his creator. One of reasons for this was, undoubtedly, Jarry's legend that developed during his lifetime as well as the fact that whenever attempts were made to understand who Ubu was after successive publications of the play, it was believed that the author’s own career was the key.
Jarry wrote a work that takes place beyond time, it has no specific "here and now", the historical time is only a casual "decorative" setting. It is hardly arguable that by locating his grotesque drama in Poland, Jarry might have provided any point of reference, given that during his premiere in 1896 he said that the action took place" in Poland – that is to say, nowhere." Indeed, at the time when Ubu Rex
enjoyed its scandalous rule over decadent Paris, Poland did not exist as a sovereign state. Its territory, people, culture and tradition had been divided arbitrarily by three powers of the time: Austria-Hungary, Kingdom of Prussia and the Russian Empire. Poland had become a mythical land, an ideal ground for the author’s imaginative actions. The fiction created by Jarry was not completely a figment of his vivid imagination; it went back to a much more prosaic origin – a history lesson.
I’ll tell you once more. I saw him in a dream, smiting you with massed weapons and throwing you into the Vistula, and an eagle like that, which figures in the Arms of Poland placing the crown on his head. (…)
My lords, I have the honour to inform you that as a gesture to the economic welfare of my kingdom, I have resolved to liquidate the entire nobility and confiscate their goods.
Bring up the first Noble and pass me the boat-hook. Those who are condemned to death, I shall push through this trap door. They will fall down into the bleed-pig chambers, and will then proceed to the cash-room where they
will be debrained.
is by no means a historical tragedy; even if it is based on a tragic story of one European country - this background is treated very casually. Ubu conquers Poland and eliminates its stately ruling royal dynasty. He murders the notables, to whom Jarry gave the names of genuine historical figures. Nevertheless, there is not enough truth and regularity in it - this is not how history was taught in the 19th
century being a time of intense attempts to chronologize the past
and put it in order. What may be a causal nexus for a historian, becomes a cavalcade of characters, wars, rapes, conspiracies and intricate links for an average reader, especially for a pupil forced to learn all this. Contrary to its objective, scientific transparency beforehand it turns into a grotesque kaleidoscope of events and characters.
Jarry's play is an absurd simplification of history, reduced to a mere set of naive stereotypes; the historical state is an amorphous land, the tyrannical invader is an obscene, moronic boor. In fact, Ubu Rex
reflects both the insanity and brutal stupidity of a traditional history, without intricate nuances. Even if methodical history was unceremoniously ridiculed by Jarry, he could not have expected that after the experience of a world war his caricatural figure would turn into a modern symbol of cruelty, insanity and political ignorance.
The history has long ago ceased to be a uniform and coherent stream of events. Neither the Hegelian Spirit of the times nor the greatness of the past have any specific application. The history dispersed into a number of lesser stories that both complete it and change its dynamics. In each of the discourses of the present-day world, there is a place for Ubu. Nevertheless, he will never lose his significance as a reflection of radically negative characteristics that stand in the way of development of the lesser stories.
The power of this play, of this unique "historical cabaret", lies in its specific universality. On this basis, we may refer to Ubu as a symbol, regardless of the age, political aspects or the historical context. The play’s open nature is confirmed by the fact that Ubu Rex
was also successfully staged in South Africa. In 1998, Jane Taylor directed "Ubu and the Truth Commission" in which she criticized the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body dealing with the crimes of the apartheid era. This is only one out of many examples of how Ubu Rex
was used to comment on issues of primary importance. It is easier to refer to Ubu in order to depict the clear madness of history, like the both world wars with their insane regimes and leaders. Should we confront the play with the history, there is no doubt as to who Ubu is. Now he becomes more distinct in his vulgarity and brutality and is easily readable.
Yet through this postmodern dispersion of the history, we are able to separate the figure created by Jarry from its conventional image. A multitude of the present-day discourses takes a critical stance on the centuries-old tradition, which on many occasions proved to be full of stereotypes and apparently unalterable truths. Each of the lesser stories - of the race, sexual orientation, different cultures, tries to encroach on the fossilized structure of the History.
Even if in its ideological structure Ubu Rex
clearly refers to a traditional concept of the past, the author’s juvenile contrariness, as shown in his language and caricatural nature of his characters, ridicules the History and its traditions. He derides it through his obscene humour and crude directness. With Ubu’s exaggerated behaviour, the History is stripped of its apparently imperturbable authority. A similar function is ascribed nowadays to lesser discourses, which, for years deprived of their voice by a superior authority, have been marginalized. The history written nowadays is composed of individual stories, most often of such stories of exclusion. It may even be observed that, for better understanding of the mechanisms of the History, we more and more often tend to refer to marginal events, phenomena or stories of various groups of people. The today’s reality of lesser discourses clearly encroaches on one of the key myths - that of the one superior History. That is what Alfred Jarry did, although he did so in a grotesque manner, deliberately stripping his story and protagonist of the earnestness expected from an authority to be overthrown. Derision and scoffing humiliation seemed to be the objective of both Jarry's and his protagonist's actions. Should we deprive Ubu of his story and look at him as a figure, with all his vices, looks and behaviours, he is not that terrible any more. More a jester than a tyrant, his actions are thus closer to tragicomic tomfoolery.
Ubu the Jester.
Oof, that bear was tough! Battle to the death between the voracious and the coriaceous, but the voracious completely ate up and devoured the coriaceous, as you will see when it gets light. Do you hear me, brave Palcontents?
What’s he babbling about? He’s even stupider than
when he left.
The jester has his place in the history, he is an authentic figure mentioned in the court chronicles of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. We know the names and surnames of individual jesters from all across Europe, but also from various parts of the World, China, India or Africa. The jester remained in the peripheries of the so-called grand narratives, he did not play any leading role in them, but functioned as their warped reflection. As a companion to kings, bishops and court envoys, he participated in the creation of the history, but always as its marginal or derided element. On the other hand, he would often speak his mind openly and unceremoniously, often exposing his masters to a moral and political failure.
Even if wearing a grotesque costume, he is the only voice of reason. Many sources argue that some kingdoms were saved from the horrors of a war by no one else but a jester, who influenced his master's final decision. This sounds probable if we take a look at the responsibilities and privileges enjoyed by the jester at the side of the rulers. He enjoyed an exclusive lifelong freedom of speech, he could speak about most crucial matters in an obscene way, he could point out the rulers' vices and unfortunate decisions straight from the shoulder - and call them simply "stupidity". This was the characteristic with which the jester won favour from his master; he functioned as the latter's conscience. With no scruples and full of derision, the court fool was the only force able to undermine the authority of the rulers. A king had to mistreat, keelhaul and ridicule the jester in order to save his authority in the end. What about a punishment? It would be hard to punish a jester in any other way - insanity cannot be tamed, after all. Ironically, insanity was the jester’s duty, not only a consequence of his role. Quite frequently, jesters would be people with visible physical deformities, midgets, people doomed to marginalization - insanity was their strategy of survival. This all was complemented by a decorative element - the costume, makeup, and all items which only served to underscore their eccentricity and insanity.
The jester should be perceived as an active Other in the perspective of the great history. Unfortunately, this Other has so far been deprived of his own voice, his own story: he has always been a mere background. Being a weirdo - being an Other - also made the jester an attractive court companion; in this way, the powerful people of the time tried to allay their fears. Even if the History mentions the jester on many occasions, the reason for this is only to preserve a stereotypical perception of eccentricity as something one should be awed by as unpredictable, insane. Due to his physical deformity, dwarfism, rudeness, the jester remained an alien, in spite of the general awareness of his existence and of the role he played. Thus it was easier to ascribe to the Alien all the characteristics that did not fit into the acknowledged conventions. This is also the way to look at Ubu, to whom Jarry imparted his hatred toward his teacher and the educational rigor.
Ubu is a person with no identity. This situation has changed together with the present-day dispersion of the History. The single-thread story that might deprive anyone of his identity is there no more. After the myth of the History had been debunked by criticism, the jester regained his identity, and stopped being an anonymous person. It was precisely lesser stories of jesters, like that of Polish Stańczyk, Elizabethan Tarlton, German Claus Hinsse or even Indian Tenali Rama, that earned them a place in the insanity of the history. Ubu, like his cultural original, was a mocker, spoke a crude language, took no heed of conventions and spoke his mind openly, but he violated the superior principle of the jester’s sovereignty -he sought for power. Hence he became a jester tyrant with nothing but his thoughtless interest on his mind. By creating his historical tomfoolery together with king Ubu, a jester tyrant on the Polish throne, Alfred Jarry subverted the figure of a conjurer.
Whereas the jester enjoyed the privilege of the freedom of speech, Ubu shows what an illusory privilege the freedom of speech is nowadays. This freedom is dependent on the generally accepted and a priori acknowledged discourse, which, unfortunately, does not fully allow tomfoolery. Fortunately, it is harder nowadays to impose limitations without consequences. Such actions raise a revolt, which is undoubtedly a privilege of the youth.
boggerlas (striking kirn)
Naughty Children of Alfred Jarry.
Take that, coward, scavenger, scoundrel, infidel, Mussulman!
pa ubu (countering)
Take that, great clot, pisspot, son of a harlot, nose-snot, bigot, faggot, gut-rot, squawking parrot, Huguenot!
ma ubu (hitting him too)
Take that, pork-snout, layabout, whore’s tout, pox-riddled spout, idle lout, boy scout, Polish Kraut.
Vladimir Lenin believed that "youth is a barometer of the revolution". Indeed, each revolution, even if it starts in private parlours behind the scenes, as soon as it hits the streets, meets favourable conditions – youth, led by emotions, idealism and strong faith in the possibility of a change. Yet almost each revolution leaves one group disappointed and the other dominant, because what follows is hard-headed politics, division of roles and establishment of a new order. Every coup, whether social or political, would be reflected in the culture and in the art. And almost each revolution would be carefully vivisected by the culture.
And almost always, what came as a major political and social shock in the historical aspects, would only be an episode in the art. The art, when seeking to strengthen its critical power and freedom, cannot become a programmatic, calculated element of a revolution, as it then becomes a tool of the latter. The consequences of such a mechanism were visible in the Nazi Germany or in the Soviet Union. One has to admit, though, that almost each coup or breakthrough brings some change.
Each revolt echoes the Nietzschean conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. It was also the case when Alfred Jarry was writing and staging his Ubu Rex
. He challenged the existing aesthetic and moral order. He showed that the past may be ridiculed without resorting to force and gory coups. His heirs, the naughty children of Alfred Jarry, representatives of cocky artistic movements, the Expressionists, Cubists, Dadaists and Surrealists proved that, even at the times crucial for the historical fate of whole nations, the tradition and the current situation could be derided and poked fun at with impunity.
It might seem that the spirit of the Ubuist derision evaporated after the World War II, that after what had happened, joking has become improper. And yet, this post-war trauma had to be tamed in order not to yield to the insanity of the History’s authority. Almost every trans-generational event gave people power to criticise the past and tradition. When a wave of student revolts rolled through America and the Western Europe in May 1968, the ideas behind it were that of a distinct political and social change. This goal was achieved.
Once again, the "naughty children of Alfred Jarry" appeared: artists and writers who ridiculed the new situation through the language of the art.
Another milestone which echoed the Ubuist ‘shrite’ was the year 1989 and the early 1990s. That time saw the beginning of a decline of the already-tottering giant, the Soviet Union. For artists, this was the moment when an ostensible joke and derision of the traditional order, principles and authorities won acclaim.
Indeed, the "naughty children of Alfred Jarry" are activated at the moment of breakthrough or generational experience. It might seem that the fall of the communism left the next generations of young people without an experience that could be shared by all of them. An event is sought that might be an impulse for generational integration: decommunization, democratic changes, ecological disaster, economic crisis or death of the pope John Paul II. Unfortunately, none of these unified the generation, some of them being too weak, other being too global. A foothold is missing among them that might be used to give the floor to our present-day Ubu.
Does this mean that there are no more "naughty children"? By no means! They do not need revolutionary experience or war trauma to be able to nettle, to ridicule, to incite. They have a full arsenal of the History and tradition at hand, and it is precisely the lack of a generational breakthrough that unites them. They are a generation advised to look back in the past, to what already happened, to what was experienced by others. Here and now, they have a full right to get their hands on the History. To fool around. They may be both Ubu and his opposition.
Whereas in the case of the previous generations there was an intention to face the tradition in an open combat, the strength of the present generations lies in their distance. This is what gives them the power to dump buckets of 'shrite' on the History.